Sydney: Before his dramatic fall from grace, Steve Smith was drawing comparisons with Australian batting icon Donald Bradman, and there are signs he is ready to pick up where he left off.
Smith was the golden boy of Australian cricket until he opted to turn a blind eye to teammates Cameron Bancroft and David Warner conspiring to alter the ball during the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town in early 2018.
It proved catastrophic, with his career and reputation crumbling — he was banned for a year and sacked as national captain.
The 29-year-old has admitted it left him devastated but he has done his time, worked hard to be in prime condition for his return and provided an ominous reminder of his sublime skills in pre-World Cup warm-up games against a New Zealand XI.
“Best physical condition of his life,” coach Justin Langer said recently of Smith, who is also returning from elbow surgery.
“That was one of his goals at the start of the ban, come back in better physical shape than ever before. He and Davey (Warner) have done the same thing, they are in pristine condition.”
While the Test format is where Smith has really excelled, he has also been formidable in One Day Internationals, where he averages 41.84 from his 108 matches, hitting eight hundreds and 19 half-centuries.
Warner can be more explosive but it was the dependable Smith who was Australia’s leading run-scorer during their successful 2015 World Cup campaign. And he reminded any sceptics of what he is capable of in the New Zealand warm-ups earlier this month.
Nerves jangled in his first knock back for Australia, when he made just 22, but he then smashed an unbeaten 89 followed by 91 not out.
Langer hailed it as “a tutorial in batting” and Glenn Maxwell, who shared in big stands during both innings, said it “was just like old times”.
“His idiosyncrasies are still there, he’s still fidgeting around and doing all of his usual things,” Maxwell said.
“And he’s still got that amazing ability to find the rope in different areas. He was brilliant, it was great to watch.”
Smith kept a low profile during his ban and has opted to stay out of the limelight since his return.
But he did offer a glimpse into how much he missed the game during a press conference in December.
“It’s been tough at times, particularly when the boys haven’t played their best in a couple of games. It’s been hard watching and knowing that I can’t go out and help them,” he said.
Part of his punishment was being barred from any leadership role for another year after the ban ran out.
Despite this, Langer said the experience of both Smith and Warner would be vital for skipper Aaron Finch and his deputies Pat Cummins and Alex Carey.
“They’re going to have to lean on all our guys and I’m sure that Steve and David will provide that leadership within the group,” he said.